Techtonic 2021

Industry 4.0: Factories that need no human

While fully autonomous facilities are still many years away, Indian organisations have taken a big leap towards it. These are exciting times! 


We are in the midst of a revolution. It may not feel like it, when we are vegging out in front of a saas-bahu series or chasing out mosquitoes with a bat, but we are. When history is being made, people are often doing mundane things.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution, or Industry 4.0, is unfolding as we breathe. The first Industrial Revolution was when we made machines move with steam, second was when we made them move with electricity, third was with electronics, and now we are set to make them move autonomously. Now, we are designing machines that can take data from the environment, process it using their algorithms and past data experience and act in a way they think best.

So what?
Manufacturing, that boring thing that happens in the background and makes our lives, laptops and toothbrushes possible, will never be the same again. A factory may soon be able to take orders from a remote location, manufacture the goods, quality check and ready them for dispatch. Simultaneously, it may be able to check the health of its machines and belts and nuts and screws, and alert those in charge if there is a need for replacements, to avoid inconvenient breakdowns and delays.

These fully autonomous facilities may be a few years away in India, but there are companies here that are already on this path with few of the processes managed remotely, even from hundreds of kilometres away.

Venugopal G, general manager and head of Digital Advisory and Industry 4.0, Bosch Digital, says Industry 4.0 is rapidly being adopted by facilities that manufacture large batches of products or in processes where there is little room for error, such as chemical production.

Before we proceed any further, let’s take a quick look at how this concept evolved. While the technologies that power it, such as IoT, data analytics, machine learning and AI, existed in silos, the first reference to bringing all of them together was made in Germany in 2011. That year, at the Hanover Fair, the head of a contract AI research firm presented the idea of using cutting-edge technologies to help high-wage countries compete globally. The idea was soon adopted by the German government as a strategy and, over the next few years, the idea seeped into the rest of the world.

Digital twin, a technology that makes a dynamic, real-time digital copy of a physical asset or process, is one of the most crucial tools in Industry 4.0 transformation. PS Easwaran, partner and leader - supply chain, Deloitte India, says, “Consumer and pharma businesses have adopted this tech most effectively. It is being used across the value chain including for demand forecasting, product development, predictive analysis in manufacturing, and for design and optimisation in logistics.”

Data run 

Venugopal had visited a southern facility of one of the leading paint manufacturers in India, a year ago, and found their processes “fairly autonomous.” “I moved around the factory floor and hardly saw people working there in a traditional manner. I saw engineers working on the mezzanine floor looking at monitors,” he says. Of course, it helps this group has years of data to fine-tune their digitisation. “Data is the backbone of any digital journey. Without enough data, you cannot dare to keep any facility 100% autonomous. With years of data collection, after decades of encountering problems and resolving them, an organisation develops confidence with which you know what could go wrong with the processes and can handle them,” he says.


There is a problem here though. Till a while ago, data was collected largely on core processes since companies thought that is what would provide analytical insights. Now they have come to realise that risk assessment must take into account extraneous matters, say, an environmental event. “Of late, there is better understanding of what kind of data must be collected and this understanding keeps growing,” he says. A culture of sharing data and learning has also developed, facilitated by industry forums. “I have been part of multiple CII forums and knowledge-sharing platforms, where people even make themselves available for consultation,” he adds.

Easwaran says the sense of urgency in adopting Industry 4.0 technologies is visible in organisations’ readiness to use minimum viable products. “They are not waiting to fix one thing, such as data quality, and then moving on to another. They are doing this simultaneously. Even if the data quality is not perfect, they are going ahead and implementing the technology, and then improving on it. People are cleansing data on an ongoing basis.”

Tech connect
Bosch has a range of Industry 4.0 solutions such as Nexseed Automation which is a software system that allows project planning, simulation, connectivity and diagnosis for manufacturing machines. The approach to automation has changed, says Venugopal. “The classical approach to automation was to look at how many people can be replaced through automation. But today it is more than that. It is about reaching the next level of productivity, of quality conformance and of sustainability. That realisation today is far superior to what it was before,” he says. He gives the example of a quality-check component installed at one of the client locations. It was a robotic arm that could take multiple pictures of a product and have it analysed using AI to see if the product met the quality standard. “With people doing this task, there would be a chance of fatigue setting in and therefore there would be room for human error,” he says.

The engineering and tech giant is now in talks with one of the largest textile manufacturers in the country. “This is a highly human resource-intensive segment and such segments are looking at digital for multiple reasons, for improved productivity and even to attract the future workforce,” he says. “Perhaps it is too soon to say this, but 10 years down the line, if a new recruit is comfortable working on his mobile phone then a supervisor cannot expect him or her to fill in log sheets. This smartphone affinity will be much more pronounced when you look at five to 10 years down the line.” So that SMEs don’t get washed away by this coming digital wave, Bosch is working with the Karnataka government to help smaller enterprises digitise their processes.

One of Bosch’s clients is Texmo Industries, one of the largest agricultural pump makers in India. “In our business, our greatest challenge is to improve our forecasting accuracy. We also realised we had to ensure our manufacturing systems were both flexible and agile so that the right product is available at the right location at any given point in time,” said Shivan Ramachandran, former Joint MD of Texmo Industries and now promoter of agri pump start-up Samudra, in an earlier interview. Bosch started by integrating the 3Ms of manufacturing – man, machine and materials—by using human-machine interfaces (such as monitors and tablets), adapters and RFID technologies, and made it possible to track the manufacturing process and material flow, and integrated information flow between the factory floor and the top management.

“All this was done so that a single version of truth exists throughout the factory,” said Sreekanta Aradhya, chief expert-Industry 4.0, Bosch India, in an earlier interview. The interconnectedness helped the facility’s staff to respond quickly to any trouble such as non-availability of materials, machine breakdowns and quality mismatch. One of the team leaders had said he now feels as if the “entire floor is within his palm.” It has brought down skill and training requirements since it allows new operators to quickly adapt, has decreased downtime by 20% and increased productivity by 25%.

The steel deal 

Though Venugopal says discrete manufacturing processes are moving faster to Industry 4.0, two integrated manufacturing facilities in India that have been awarded the Lighthouse status by the World Economic Forum, are steelmaker Tata Steel’s Kalinganagar and Jamshedpur sites. This is a recognition given to manufacturing companies that adopt 4.0 technology at scale, with financial and operational impact.

The steel manufacturer has been using the technology for factory-floor processes and maintenance, and mining operations, besides corporate functions such as finance and administration. “We have used it across the organisation,” says Jayanta Banerjee, Group CIO, Tata Steel, “but 100% automation is still a few years of technological advancement away.” Right now, they are running with a human-machine intersection, where humans hold the reins and artificial intelligence assists.

It seems a modest summary of their Industry 4.0 implementation if we probe a bit deeper. There are 110 advanced analytics and AI algorithms running through the entire process, either assisting humans to take decisions or actually taking decisions. Around 1,500 critical pieces of equipment have sensors attached.

Starting with generating leads for sales, for which meeting clients was vital, many functions can now be done from the comfort of the office. For example, Tata Steel sells roofing sheets under the brand name Tata Shaktee. Earlier, sales staff had to travel even to remote areas to gauge the extent of demand. Today, they can check this through satellite imaging and know where potential customers are. “Not a single person has to move from their desk,” says Banerjee.

In their factories, they can keep track of the condition of their machines and which ones require maintenance, thus avoiding unplanned breakdowns. This is particularly important in a steel facility, where furnaces need to be in continuous operation. At their mining sites, they have dashboards that show the movement of load from the shaft to the pick-up vehicle, they can see if the load or the vehicle is kept waiting and remedy that. “The algorithm to optimise this process can be run from a mobile phone, so it can be done from Mumbai or it can be done from anywhere, and appropriate intervention can be taken at the mine,” says Banerjee.

At their blasting operations, they can check which drivers are hitting the pedal too often and too hard, thus driving up fuel costs. The driver can then be advised to apply optimal pressure and gradually break the rash-driving habit. They can also see who is falling asleep at the wheel, by tracking eye and head movements, sound a buzzer and avoid accidents. All the mining dumpers in the transportation fleet are sensorised, and this is managed from a virtual command centre. On the factory floor, algos can figure out the right mix of carbon and metal for the best alloy.

Tata Steel’s digital transformation journey began in 2018. Today, all their IT and corporate functions including manufacturing supervision, are remote-enabled and they have moved 85% of their infra to the cloud. “We have kept 10-15% of manufacturing functions such as execution systems on-premises to ensure there is not a single outage or failure of the network grid, owing to natural disasters such as a cyclone, because the steel mills run continuously,” he says.

Showing the way
There are various hurdles that stand in the way of widespread adoption of Industry 4.0. They are an old-school mindset, lack of technology and high cost of implementation. “All three play a role now,” says Banerjee, adding, “A steelmaker cannot imagine working a distance away from the physical asset. It is the most difficult thing for people of this industry and of many such industries to embrace. For technologists, this is easy.”

He recalls an incident from his three decades in the IT industry. When he started doing offshore work, American and European customers could not believe work could be done without any trouble from such a distance away. To prove his point, he asked them to give him a room in the building and let him coordinate from there, and asked them not to come and see him in person. He tried to simulate the time difference as well, between India and the client’s country, saying that he would call only after 6.30 pm or in the early morning hours. After two to three months of trying this out, without telling them, he traveled to India and called them from here. They were surprised but work had gone on smoothly, so there was no reason to complain. “You have to enable adoption of a new paradigm, it is tough and it takes time,” he says.

But Tata Steel is already ahead of its peers. “Digital transformation has a boardroom presence,” says Banerjee, “so it is a priority for the top management and the board.” On the technology front, he says that technologists have to think within the business context. That is, they should not just consider if the technology is available in the market but if it makes business sense for the company to adopt it. “Sometimes we reject a lot of software and a lot of technology early on because the cost is way higher than the benefit we can get out of it,” says Banerjee, “We have to wait for the technology cost also to come down.”

Prudence before jumping on to the bandwagon is advised by Bosch’s Venugopal too, particularly for smaller companies. “Digital needs upfront investment in technology. If you do ten experiments, maybe five or eight may give you the result you want. So large corporates, who can afford this, are good to go. But smaller companies, with  Rs.1 billion or  Rs.2 billion in revenue, given their limited resources, could wait and use only time-tested technologies,” he says.

In implementing digital-twin technology, Easwaran says one size does not fit all. “Large organisations can use it to manage their complexities and smaller organisations can use it to scale up capabilities,” he says. Post COVID, he has noticed a visible change in attitude towards this technology among traditional companies. “Before, they were not seeing any significant value. But after the pandemic, with remote working made possible, they are sensing the importance of this tech. During the pandemic, those who had been more open to digital adoption could more easily adapt with minimum disruption. They had better utilisation ratios.”

He is more optimistic about fully autonomous organisations. He believes the cost of the technology will fall dramatically over the next few years, particularly with the government’s push to promote local manufacturing. This will make the economics of Industry 4.0 more attractive.

In 2018, a study by the World Economic Forum, in collaboration with AT Kearney, looked into the readiness of 100 countries — that account for 96% of global GDP — to make the best of Industry 4.0. They found 25 countries mostly in Europe, North America and East Asia “well positioned” but found that a majority of the economies, about 58 countries, had “low level of readiness.” Ten economies, which included India, fell in the Legacy category. It meant they had a strong production base — because of advantages such as low wages — but these economies were at risk because they lacked the support system that could help them make the best of these technologies.

As a country, we need to move fast or lose out. It is not easy to predict the level of Industry 4.0 adoption in India, says Venugopal. “But we can start by saying that the ship has set sail and there is no return,” he adds.